24th Mar 2018


Prospects for a better Ukraine

  • Ukrainians mourn Maidan casualties after the fall of Yanukovych in February (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

Walking across Kiev’s Maidan square in mid-March this year, the barricades covered by banners and flowers reminded me of Cairo’s Tahrir square in 2011.

Both now have their place in history for popular uprisings against a ruler, and for many symbolise the hope of a new era.

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In Egypt the hopes of renewal have been shattered. In Ukraine the risk of failure is great. But there is a crucial difference between the two. In Egypt, an agreed roadmap for reforms was always elusive, while Ukraine’s European ambition means that the shape of necessary democratic reforms is long-known. The European institutions should give no less than tough love to Kiev now, to make sure these reforms finally take place.

From the start Egypt’s transition was overshadowed by a lack of consensus on what democracy in Egypt could look like. For the Muslim Brotherhood it boiled down to a question of electoral majorities.

But many opponents of this most successful Egyptian party could only think of judicial machinations and eventually sheer brutality to halt its march to power. Ukraine’s outlook is brighter in this respect.

With citizens demanding the country to become a European democracy, the requirements to do so provide a detailed roadmap on what its democracy should look like: a system of majority rule, tempered by checks and balances and safeguards against concentration of power, in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and numerous other legal obligations and political commitments that Ukraine has accepted since its independence in 1991.

For almost two decades now the fine-print of necessary reforms has been discussed, in particular with the Council of Europe, the pan-European inter-governmental body promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Ukraine’s political class and its legal experts understand what needs to be done. At the heart of these reforms are constitutional amendments to strengthen parliament, to increase judicial independence and to cut down the outsized power of the general prosecutor, a Soviet-era institutions often used as a political bludgeon.

Empowering parliament vis-a-vis the president carries risks.

A parliament with weak parties and corruptible politicians might not be in a position to steer the country through this challenging transition. However, Ukrainians have seen time and again how a nominally mixed parliamentary-presidential system turned into repressive, authoritarian presidentialism financed by powerful oligarchs.

It happened after Viktor Yanukovych won presidential elections in 2010 and is one root cause of this year’s Maidan uprising.

Endemic corruption was another call to revolution. “Ukraine” means borderland and indeed the country is at the crossroads of European democracy and Russian-style autocracy. Ukraine is well ahead of Russia and many other post-Soviet states in terms of political freedoms and pluralism, even though Yanukovych in the last years reversed the positive trend.

Corruption runs deep

But Ukraine is still deep in the post-Soviet orbit of corruption, ranking lower than Russia on Transparency International’s index of perceived corruption. Many Ukrainians describe their parliament as an institution for sale to the highest bidders. Corruption has undermined the trust in politics to a degree that some Maidan groups call for a wholesale re-invention of democratic institutions.

Europe should welcome these groups as allies to move Ukraine towards European values, but there is a risk that Maidan groups and parts of the public become so dogmatic that they do not contribute constructively to the transition.

Clamouring for a complete re-invention of politics, they may find the Council-of-Europe inspired reforms too complex and too technical. The public could loose confidence in the transition and turn against it.

The wider public must become part of the debate to understand that democracy and the rule of law is underpinned by intricate technical rules.

Decentralisation is the most difficult item in the forthcoming reform package. Despite its considerable size and its heterogeneous population, Ukraine is a rather centralised state. Significant decentralisation would be an obvious way of giving all regions a stronger sense of inclusion, thereby strengthening democracy.

Yet Ukrainian policymakers have been reluctant to decentralise, and adverse to anything coming close to creating a federal system, for fear that it could be a precursor for secessions.

The debate has now been poisoned by recent Russian demands that Ukraine be turned into a federation. Nothing could conjure up fears of decentralisation more than the big neighbour’s insistence to do so – while it occupies Crimea.

The short-term constitutional reforms should include measures of de-centralisation, but a more systematic reform should be carried out with more time based on a careful, country-wide deliberative process trying to find consensus on the relationship between the central state, the regions and local governments.

If Russia does not manage to destabilise the reform process in Ukraine, as many believe it is trying to do, the country has a chance to make the transition to a more democratic system.

The EU has already supported reforms for many years, and should redouble its efforts, in particular by helping to ensure that the newly empowered public has an understanding and a say in the seemingly technical reform process. The EU and its partners should make sure that reforms proceed along the lines of long-standing recommendations by the Council of Europe and other expert organisations.

These recommendations do not reflect some special Western European model of democracy. They are based on obligations that almost European states committed to respect when joining the organisation - Russia included.

For Europe it should now be a matter of tough love: The doors are open for further European integration, but there is no back-to-business as usual.

The Maidan protesters’ demands for deep reform, rooting out corruption in particular, must be heeded.

The writer is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO

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